Where are Iceland's most beautiful beaches? Are they for swimming, wading and surfing, or just for enjoying in a safe distance from the powerful tides? Read on for our selection of the most enigmatic Icelandic beaches. Discover where to go and what to do when you find yourself facing the freezing Arctic ocean on a volcanic island in the North.
As an island at the edge of the Arctic, Iceland exhibits a myriad of enchanting beaches that circumvent its coastline. When one envisions going to the beach, one might picture a sunny resort with infrastructural facilities or, perhaps, wild strips of white sand tucked away by tropical trees and small huts.
The beaches of Iceland, however, fall somewhere in between those two categories. Most of them are undeveloped but frequented by the communities that live nearby since the country is only inhabited along its shores.
A favoured pastime for Icelandic families is to bring the children to the beach to examine the ecosystem and collect seashells and rocks. With that said, there are those seekers of chills who brave the cold waters for the thrilling daredevil sports of sea-swimming or Arctic surfing.
Most Icelandic beaches are black because of the volcanic nature of their surroundings. This feature excites travellers because of the otherworldly sceneries these waterfronts offer—visiting an Icelandic beach can feel like travelling to another planet.
But because of the greater number of black beaches in Iceland, locals tend to favour their fair coloured counterparts. Beaches of white, yellow and gold are mostly found on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and in the desolate Westfjords, with a couple more located in and around the capital area of Reykjavík.
Without further ado, allow us to present you with a varied selection of Iceland’s 13 most breathtaking beaches—be they dark or fair, cultivated or wild, treacherous or calm.
There are plenty of tranquil and fascinating beaches to be found in the greater capital area. In the municipality of Garðabær, between towns Kópavogur and Hafnarfjörður, you’ll find Álftanes, a white sand spit dotted with lava rocks and brimming with history.
The surrounding lava bears the name Gálgahraun, meaning Gallows’ Lava, and used to serve as an execution spot for lawbreakers of old. The spit is also home to Bessastaðir, former home to king’s men and chieftains but the current residence of the President. At the very edge of Álftanes, visitors can also locate Skansinn, where a fortress to defend the Crown's men at Bessastaðir was built to fend off pirates.
The beach is but a 20-minute drive from the Reykjavík city centre and the perfect place for a day away with the family. You can visit Álftaneskirkja Church, then head to the beach to fly a kite or collect some seashells, before making your way to soak in the warm waters of the Álftanes swimming pool that’s only a stone’s throw away.
There’s no end to the wonders of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. One of its main attractions is the black pebble beach Djúpalónssandur which was once home to a prolific fishing village. Today, the region is uninhabited, but various odds and ends give an insight into past residents and practices.
Four ancient lifting stones, that were used to test the strength of fishermen, still occupy the beach, as well as the protected remains of a 1948 British trawler shipwreck. As for the other realms, the beach is also home to various rock and lava formations that are said to belong to trolls and elves.
The area surrounding this beach of glistening black pearls makes for a vital part of its allure. To get to it, you must walk through a rocky citadel of lava until reaching the two freshwater lagoons of Djúpulón from which the beach gets its name. Enjoy the scenery to its fullest, but take heed that this beach is not for wading, as powerful sneak waves can catch you off guard and carry you out to sea in an instant.
Photo Credit: Florian Prischl
There are many reasons why visitors to Iceland should make their way west to Borgarnes. The town is only about 70 kilometres away from the capital area, where it nests within the scenic fjord Borgarfjörður, rich in settlement history and natural attractions. What most people don’t know, however, is that right by Borgarfjörður’s bridge hides a perfect getaway for shore fishing.
Seleyri is a waterfront that boasts brown trout, arctic char and migrating salmon heading inland to the rivers of the Borgarnes Peninsula. Interested anglers can contact the landowners for fishing permits, but because of the declining numbers of char, all fish caught of that particular species are to be released back into the water.
The beach itself is one of black sand and serves as a recommended hidden gem for anyone driving through the area, be they anglers or not. When stopping here for pictures or a scenic stroll, remember to watch out for the arctic tern—a migratory seabird known for being highly protective by nature and adamant in scaring you off their nesting grounds.
Photo: 'Helgi Halldórsson' - Wikimedia Creative Commons
While most beaches in Iceland are wild and undeveloped, Nauthólsvík is a man-made resort boasting fair-coloured sand and public facilities. Whenever the weather is nice, locals flock to this location, perhaps for that tropical feeling so absent in the Arctic.
The beach makes use of geothermal heating to warm the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean within a barricaded bay, where guests can enjoy the privilege of sunbathing to their hearts’ content. The beach boasts two outdoor hot tubs, a sauna, dressing rooms, a volleyball net and the upscale restaurant Strandkaffi, providing for all the comforts of an authentic summer holiday.
You’ll find this gem of a resort within the central capital, right next to the Reykjavík University. Bring the whole family and watch Icelanders playing make-believe, pretending that for the time being, they might be living somewhere warm and sunny.
Photo by Alda Sigmundsdóttir
For a golden blanket of sand, make your way to Rauðasandur at the remote southern edge of the Icelandic Westfjords. Pulverised scallop shells are what gives this enchanting beach its velvet colours, which contrast sharply with the black surrounding cliffs and blue ocean waves.
The beach stretches ten kilometres out from Látrabjarg—a steep sea cliff that’s seasonal home to nesting puffins and one of the most visited sights in the Westfjords. On fair-weathered days, the scene offers breathtaking views where one can see all the way to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and its resident glacier volcano Snæfellsjökull.
Rauðasandur requires a bit of effort to get to, but you’ll appreciate the destination after having ventured the journey, which consists of braving a steep gravel road, hiking for a kilometre and wading a wide river. Less accessibility, however, provides for a surplus of peace and quiet.
By the outskirts of Reykjavík, on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, you'll find every bird watcher's dream. The black sandspit Grótta was historically inhabited as early as the 1500s, but nowadays, its residents mostly include the feathered kind. The beach is off limits during nesting season every May through June, but at any other time, it functions as the perfect Reykjavík getaway.
When the tide is low, visitors can walk up to the resident lighthouse, which has stood on the beach for over a century. You can also find an intriguing wooden structure meant for drying fish and a small hot pool called Kvika in which you can dip your feet after a long day.
This beach has got it all. Visit at sunrise or sunset for the most romantic of sceneries, in summer for bird watching, or in winter to catch a display of the Aurora away from the city lights.
Photo by Jórunn Sjöfn
The second beach of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to make our list is found at Búðir, right by one of the area's most photographed sights—the black church Búðarkirkja. The archaic surroundings offer a scenery of tall windswept grass that makes way for a soft blanket of fair-coloured sand, dotted with jet black lava rocks.
Right by this golden gem, you’ll find the nature reserve Búðarhraun, a vast and ethereal lava field perfect for hiking, horse riding and nature photography.
Búðir used to be a vibrant and prominent fishing village and one of the country’s earliest trading posts. But like most settlements in the area, it got abandoned in the beginning of the 19th Century.
Nowadays, not much of the village remains except its church and mystical atmosphere. Wildlife enthusiasts will also be pleased to find out that curious seals are often seen lounging in the shallows of the shore.
Photo Credit: Sören Schaper
At the southwest tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula lies the black sand beach Sandvík, characterised by the crashing and merciless waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The reason why this beach must make our list is that it’s one of the prime destinations for Iceland’s small but diligent surfing community.
Surfing in Iceland means facing freezing waters and savage winds, which requires a knowledge of weather patterns and tidal projections, as well as the utmost respect for the dangers of the Arctic sea. Foreseeing the perfect conditions has proved hard for travelling surfers, but the optimal window for daredevils is usually between October and March when the storms are heavy and the currents strong.
If surfing is not your thing, the area is still a joy to visit for its beauty and geographical allure. Sandvík boasts a small wooden bridge across two lava cliffs, noteworthy for stretching across the two continents—seeing as the peninsula serves as a continuation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
When traversing Iceland's South Coast, all roads lead to the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón. The vast spit of sand that stretches from the lagoon, approximately 18 kilometres west to the foot of Kvíárjökull Glacier, is Breiðamerkursandur, a glacial outwash plain in the municipality of Hornafjörður.
The icebergs on the Jökulsárlón lagoon have broken off from Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap of the country. Three of its outlet glaciers, Breiðamerkurjökull, Hrútárjökull and Fjallsjökull formed the outwash plain over the course of the last few centuries. The beach boasts a variety of birds, including the great skua and Arctic tern, as well as seals and Arctic foxes.
You have most likely heard of the Diamond Beach, where the icebergs from Jökulsárlón gather on a strip of black sand to glisten in the sun like gemstones. In reality, what the tourist industry calls the Diamond Beach is simply the fracture of Breiðamerkursandur that sits right by the famed lagoon. The name turned out to be so befitting that it stuck—and let’s be honest—it’s much easier for English speakers to pronounce.
Belonging to the many attractions of Iceland’s South Coast is Reynisfjara, a black pebble beach that rests by the coastal village Vík í Mýrdal. Readily available from the ring road, the beach draws flocks of visitors daily, who come to admire everything from the North Atlantic puffins that nest on the cliffs of Mt. Reynisfjall, to the dramatic sea stacks Reynisdrangar that rest just offshore.
The beach frequently makes headlines in the news, not because of its beauty but because of its imminent dangers so often ignored by travellers. When walking the beach, one might think the ocean to be far away, but sneak waves can suddenly come rushing in and pull you out to sea. When visiting, take the warning signs seriously and never turn your back to the sea.
With that said, this wonder is one of the most visited sights in the country for a reason. The basalt columns Garðar provide for stunning pillars of elemental rock formations, and the iconic Reynisdrangar rock formation carries with it a legend of trolls dragging a three-masted ship to shore before the sunlight turned them into eerie stone structures for all eternity.
In the southern Westfjords, en route to Europe’s largest bird cliff, Látrabjarg, you’ll find the idyllic bay of golden sand called Breiðavík. Steep mountains embrace the beach on each side, while an old farmhouse by the sea provides for the most scenic of views.
Visiting the area feels a bit like travelling in Iceland decades ago; a quaint country hotel, a camping site and a river rich in trout offer the perfect getaway for those looking for peace and quietude. Looking over the bay is Breiðavíkurkirkja, a small white church donning the quintessential red roof of its Icelandic counterparts.
Although the scenery should be reason enough to make you want to make your way across the unpaved mountain roads to Breiðavík, most people visit this beach for the puffins. Every year, from April throughout September, the North Atlantic Puffin returns from the open oceans to breed in his prime location, Látrabjarg Mountain.
Photo by Mads Peter Iversen
Iceland is composed of young landscapes that are in constant development due to the country's volcanic activity. For a striking visual display of the land's volcanic nature, look no further than to the glacial sand plains of Sólheimasandur on the South Coast.
This desert of black sand was formed during a massive glacier outburst flood only a few centuries ago, caused by eruptions from the infamous Katla Volcano. There’s a reason the whole world is holding its breath for the next eruption of Iceland's most powerful volcano—each time it erupts, the effects it has on the environment are of catastrophic proportions.
The sand is also home to a US Navy DC-3 aircraft that crashed back in 1973. The crew members survived but abandoned their plane, leaving behind an accidental monument of post-apocalyptic allure.
Because of the spectacle’s rising popularity as a sightseeing spot and photography location in the last years, a parking lot had to be constructed by the main road, from which visitors will have to make the one-hour hike up to the aircraft.
The soft sand and its vegetation are highly fragile, so driving up to the wreck is not only dangerous, it is strictly forbidden as to protect the landscape from irreversible track marks.
On the headland of Stokksnes in the desolate East Fjords, there’s a magnificent black beach that stretches out from the foot of Mt. Vestrahorn—one of Iceland’s rare gabbro rock mountains. This beach is every photographer’s dream, as natural forces continually shape the landscape yielding different scenic results.
Scouting the beach by Vestrahorn feels like an exhilarating treasure hunt. In the area you’ll find a Viking village made for a film set that got left behind, remains of a N.A.T.O. radar station, a wooden shipwreck and a small lighthouse. The site is also historically significant as it counts as one of the more famous locations of Iceland’s pre-Viking settlement by the Irish.
On the shore, you’ll find lava dunes coated with deep-green grass, while the wet sand tends to grant a perfect mirroring of the dramatic mountain that watches over this untouched natural wonder. While admiring all of this, remember to respect the environment; the grass that serves to protect the dunes has sometimes been trampled by incautious visitors.
Iceland boasts of a coastline as magnificent as its highlands and glaciers, where one can enjoy a first-hand account of the power of the natural elements that shape this volcanic island.
We hope that this list provided you with useful information as to where to find the most stunning of these destinations. The map below points to the exact location of all the beaches listed above.
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